I have often wondered if the natural pressure valve which evolved over thousands of years and saved the society from breakdown has broken down. Since the times of cavemen, a sense of shared time and space gave way to families, tribes, communities and nations. Proximity, ethnicity, common needs and fears created faith, around which got people together.
Somewhere down the line faith led to organised religion, collective identity and values. People then started protecting their region and resources. There were conflicts, epidemics and disasters, which kept millions of people occupied. However, even brief periods of peace and human ingenuity spurred the mind to seek newer intellectual peaks and progress.
As society advanced and civilisations took roots, the time spent on hunting and gathering reduced. One outcome was more time for leisure and the need for social connections.
Over time rituals, festivals, beliefs, totems and icons developed. As communities shaped up, political and spiritual intermediaries developed. Insecurity, fear and greed morphed into religious collectives bound around these symbols. Paradoxically, human genius expanded horizons and social communities spun inwards. This gave rise to a miasma of doubt and suspicion. But it also fuelled a desire for belonging. As the communities and nations grew larger, people started to search for their identity in smaller sects, clans and groups.
The next most common denominator was, of course, religion. So, religious festivals and gatherings became the fulcrum of community-building. This led to smaller groups of people following a particular interpretation of a religious belief. Gurus and sages gathered large followings.
The flag of a community, tribe or nation became symbolic as people waged wars to protect or expand their geographical boundaries or increase the number of adherents to their faith. Even this grouping at the micro level left a lot of time for leisure, which was spent on sports and in artistic pursuits. From utilitarianism, man moved to creative excellence.
For this essay, let's skip a few millennia and come closer to cotemporary times. Let's examine how communities and societies dealt with the conundrum mentioned above and let's look at India as a case study.
In a typical Indian city or large town, people were divided along class lines in the 1930s. The British, other Europeans, the Indian elite and the upper middle class had a lifestyle centered on clubs, cinema, concerts, parties, flower shows, sporting events and soirées.
The Indian elite had highly westernised lifestyles. However, there was no contradiction between their day-to-day Western lifestyle and Indian roots. There was a religious divide but this divide never upset any social equation. So when a Muslim visited a Hindu, or vice versa, food was cooked and served in separate dishes. On important festivals such as Diwali, Holi, Eid, Onam, Durga Puja and Christmas, meeting and greeting each other was common. But no one expected friends from outside the faith to participate in the rituals and prayers. The dissolution of princely states also made the middle-class the new patron saints of arts.
Marriages were arranged with elaborate ceremonies and usually among the same communities. There were picnics and balls but there were also pilgrimages and kathas. Summer vacations were divided between trips to hill stations and native places. There was a natural connect between different Indias and one travelled between different geographies with ease. English or Hindustani blended easily with Tamil, Bengali, Telugu, Punjabi, Marathi, Malayalam or Bhojpuri.
Within the same family one could have both the Barra Sahib and the Gandhian freedom fighter live in harmony. There were intellectual debates in colleges and public spaces such as libraries. There was a choice to visit an ashram or join the Theosophical Society. You could attend a Shakespeare play or go for a DV Paluskar concert. Watch a movie or go to a mushiara or kavi sammelan. It was an egalitarian society largely at peace with itself.
Even the fight for freedom turned to the ancient Hindu credo of Ahimsa Parmo Dharma (nonviolence is sacrosanct). Travel was still restricted to annual visits home or pilgrimage. Hobbies such as collecting stamps or embroidery were popular.
Reading was popular and youngsters were encouraged to get books from libraries. Most members of this group were politically aware and vacillated between Fabian socialism and laissez faire.
A distinct feature of Indian cities and towns was the hawkers who visited homes selling virtually everything - almost a personal shopping service like Amazon.
The next was the aspirational class - people, who over generations, had moved from abject poverty and ignorance to education and respectability.
Bulwark of India
These people, who would go on to form the famed middle-class of independent India, the bulwark of new India, became the harbinger of socio-economic change. Though they were influenced by their more privileged cousins, they were more conservative and orthodox in their living. They were still connected to their roots. If some of our traditions and culture survive with civility, it is because of these people.
It was reformers from within these people who tried fighting the myths and orthodoxy, which had seeped into religions and the first attempts at changing accepted social evils such as sati, child marriage, widow remarriage, untouchability and unnecessary elaborate religious practices. Many of the reforms, which we take for granted, were brought about in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
Tolerance and religiosity overlapped but were not in conflict. I remember my own childhood in an upper middle-class home in New Delhi in the 1950s and 1960s.
With educated parents and successful grandparents, uncles, cousins etc, we were the change that was to be. The atmosphere was bereft of any caste or religious bias. So people like us grew in modern progressive homes but where tradition and cultural roots were still respected and sometime practised. I knew my Ramayan and Mahabharat even as I learned Wordsworth and Shakespeare. I knew my Ghalib and my Nirala too.
I and millions others read Das Kapital along with The Discovery of India. I was familiar with RK Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand, Amrita Pritam, Sahir, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Subramania Bharati, Premchand, Phanishwar Nath Renu and Krishan Chandar. I loved Awadhi cuisine as much as dosas and idlis.
However, in the years to come, religion asserted itself and divisive agendas led to what we now call vote-bank politics. The assertion of identity by the 35 per cent scheduled castes, tribes and other backward classes changed the socio-political dynamics completely. This led to the decline and ultimate collapse of the superstructure of interdependencies and mutual trust.
The tide was turning
The late sixties saw the rise of the urban lumpen. A whole generation brought up surrounded by frugality and shortages, looked down upon extravagance and ostentation.
As our exposure grew through watching television and other mass media, people's aspirations soon turned into desires. New role models of achievers and successful men and women overturned popular iconography. The rot had set in and it would take four decades for a social metamorphosis to complete.
Regional aspirations and caste equations began to change. From language the poll plank for the new breed of politicians, led by the socialists, shifted to geographical identity.
Until the Naxalite movement and other insurgencies in North-East India, there were few outbreaks of violence. We lost the plot during the 1970s. Political opportunism and a misplaced socialist economic policy led us towards isolation and social divide based on religion and ideology.
Media lost its idealism. Our arts and culture including our films, music and dance acquired a synthetic patina.
By the time we reached the turn of the century, India had shed many of its colonial legacies. Despite what the UNDP report may say, we overcame perennial shortages of food. Consumerism brought with it ready-to-wear, polyester, cafes and eating joints.
Electricity, water, sewerage, two-wheelers and cars, gas stoves and microwaves, discotheques and multiplexes entered the modern discourse. IIMs, IITs, MBAs, IAS were abbreviations that gained traction. Money was still scarce but consumerism entered the life of more than half of India.
We were a fast developing economy. Our engineers and doctors were sought around the world. Our sportsmen, artistes and writers were making their presence felt globally. India was the new elephant waking up from a deep and long slumber.
But where are the harvest festivals, family reunions, antaksharis, festivities and food sharing practices? Where are the simple birthday parties with home-cooked treats and no return gifts or the excited schools plays in ramshackle halls?
Good old days
The interpersonal relations developed over centuries have gone missing. I am not the one to wallow in nostalgia. But I do reflect on the transformation. I believe in technology and science, I also believe in progress and new journeys.
What I have problem is the loss of innocence, hyper competitive childhoods, devious pursuit of success, a sense of longing and belonging. We have lost all of it to the thumb generation.
What we have also lost is the interwoven fabric of Indianess and thousands of years of culture.
The essence of Hinduism (let's not forget that India has about 80 per cent Hindus), the greatness of Vedas and Upanishads, has been forgotten.
Some medieval mind's interpretations of our culture are now likely to be passed on to the next generation as the truth.
I am proud that I belonged to a faith, which produced some of the greatest thinkers and creators. But I am angry at the shallow depiction of our religious heritage by people who confuse folk legends with history. I would like to discuss my religion with all those wannabes on television.
If Hindus have done bad, I must say that the proponents of Islam have done worse. Their interpretation of the Prophet's message and the holy Quran is misplaced. Rabble-rousers cannot represent any faith.
Unfortunately, armchair liberals and secularists, inspired by Western thoughts and socialism, which further marginalises the poor and the underprivileged, have harmed national interest.
I support Narendra Modi because despite all his faults, he is the best bet for India's development. He has to act tough and just and not waste time arguing with a pygmy Opposition. We as a people also must get to work rather than squabble over ideologies.
A nation's destiny doesn't depend on cynics but doers.
We have tampered with the society's pressure valves. We must fix it before the pent up steam destroys us all.